Celebrating humanity with Beethoven

21 Oct

The festival's opening concert, held on August 26 in the Bonn opera house, was inspired by the idea that all people are heroes of their own stories and that music can tell their tales.


Ivan Fischer led the Budapest Festival Orchestra in a special program featuring two contemporary pieces alongside Beethoven's Third Symphony, the "Eroica."

Music for everybody

The program started with a piece by Dutch composer Louis Andriessen, titled "Workers Union." Written in 1975 in the spirit of the era's leftist protest movements, the work expresses opposition to highly regulated conservative structures — both in the outside world but also within the concert hall.

In a clear break with traditional concert practices, the orchestra was already playing as the audience took their seats, and it is street instruments that had the first say. The Budapest Festival Orchestra's percussionists banged away on water jugs and bottles. Some of the musicians wore hard hats while others served as live music stands, walking around onstage with giant copies of the printed music hanging off of them.

A chamber orchestra gradually came together, and looking at the musicians, you could tell they were having a blast performing Andriessen's rather complicated and forceful piece. It was an impressive demonstration of the power that can be released when people come together musically.

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The program notes for the piece included the following line: "Only in the case of every player playing with such an intention that their part is an essential one, the work will succeed; just as in the political work."            Macabre mysteries

Hungarian conductor Ivan Fischer, who co-founded the orchestra in 1983, only appeared on stage as the piece's final chords rang out. Was this a small act of compositional protest by Andriessen? An autonomous orchestra rejecting the conductor?

Ivan Fischer shared his thoughts: "The real purpose of a conductor is to maintain unity. But this piece is written in such a way that the orchestra keeps in step with itself wonderfully, like in a march. It's highly rhythmic and pulsating and works brilliantly without a conductor. And then I feel just great, because I actually feel my best when I can sit in the hall and listen."

Fischer was back to his usual onstage work in our next selection in this episode: György Ligeti's "Mysteries of the Macabre." The piece consists of three arias that come from his opera "Le Grande Macabre." It's creative, searching, somewhat bizarre music — in other words, definitely not what you hear every day. Anna-Lena Elbert, a young soprano from Munich, was singing. It's definitely possible to draw parallels between the arias and the current world situation. The title of the opera they come from, "Le Grand Macabre," can be translated as "the big macabre" or "the big death."

It refers to the character of Nekrotzar, who claims to be death itself. His goal is to spread fear and horror, and he proclaims that the world is about to end. A totally devious figure on a rogue mission that in no small part recalls Vladimir Putin and his war in Ukraine. At the end of the opera, Nekrotzar returns to the grave, disappearing for good. Conductor Ivan Fischer played a key role in shaping the concert program. After all, his orchestra was the one performing pieces by contemporary composers Ligeti and Andriessen alongside Beethoven's Third Symphony.

Fischer explained how he came up with the idea to present these specific composers together: "It's very easy to forget that Beethoven was a very modern composer in his time. Now we look at Beethoven as an old music, what we are all familiar with, but it's extremely new, innovative and provoking type of music. So we wanted to put Beethoven in the context of modernity, of something which is equally provoking, equally new and absolutely breaking with earlier traditions."

When in 1983, Fischer and fellow Hungarian conductor and composer Zoltan Kocsis founded the Budapest Festival Orchestra, the ensemble's goal was to perform music at the highest level while simultaneously serving the community, such as through charity projects like a concert series for people with autism. Today, the orchestra is among the best in the world.

The 2022 Beethovenfest in Bonn

The multi-week event kicked off on August 26 with a concert featuring contemporary pieces and, of course, music by Ludwig van Beethoven. A new artistic director was at the helm of this year's festival: Steven Walter. He was born in Germany to American parents in 1986. Walter studied cello, but in recent years, he has largely dedicated himself to cultural management. The opening concert of the 2022 Beethoven Festival was his first opportunity to present himself and his vision to audiences in Bonn, the city where Beethoven was born.

Walter's goal is to make the festival fresher and more modern, and to diversify both the program and the concert formats. "We want to get creative with classical music. I think that's quite important for the future of the art form, and of course it's in the art form itself. I mean, Beethoven was an immensely creative artist, and it kind of makes sense that a Beethovenfest would be a creative platform for that music. So we try to use the music in all kinds of interesting ways, connecting it to today's world, today's communities, today's spaces."

Beethoven originally dedicated his Third Symphony to Napoleon — it even bore his name: "Intitolata Bonaparte" or "Titled Bonaparte" was written on the first page of the score. The composer initially saw Napoleon as the guarantor of liberty, equality and fraternity. But this changed in 1804, when Napoleon had himself crowned emperor in Notre Dame Cathedral — a move that made Beethoven boil with anger. "He's no different than an ordinary man," the composer supposedly yelled while tearing up the symphony's title page. Only a single copy of the score exists, and on it, you can see how Beethoven has scratched out Napoleon's name. It's one of the most famous strike-throughs in all of music history.

Music from the homeland

Having previously performed two contemporary works and a Beethoven symphony, the Budapest Festival Orchestra performed an encore with a different tone. It was a piece from their homeland: the final two movements from Hungarian composer Bela Bartok's "Romanian Folk Dances" for orchestra. Ivan Fischer conducted.


Anastassia Boutsko


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